Last week, one of my besties, Rohan Talbot had his most recent OpenDemocracy column sort of explode on the Internet.
Rohan’s article got featured around the Internet circuit because, in addition to being written by a clever koala, it:
A) discussed the increased violence in Tripoli that occurred two weekends ago; and
B) argued that social media had negative implications in the midst of violence in Lebanon, particularly in spreading rumours and potentially aggravating ongoing tensions.
Apparently B was the controversial bit. Numerous people via the blogosphere and Twitterverse have responded, assessing the accuracy of this depiction and the relevance of social media in Lebanon.
I am not up to date or expert enough to comment on the politics of the violence occurring in Lebanon, so I’ll leave those discussions to others.
Instead, I’d like to highlight some interesting ideas embedded in Rohan’s analysis. Specifically, he speaks to two dynamics of social media in conflict that I haven’t seen discussed much elsewhere.
1) The increasing use of social media as a vehicle for information and emotional outlet for people in violent contexts
Although we know that people are increasingly using social media and mobile phones around the wold, what that means exactly during crisis situations and violent conflicts is still an ongoing puzzle. In what contexts does getting real-time information from Facebook or Twitter enable people to find safety and support–and when does it jeopardise it? How do people filter sources to trust? How do the local and global elements of social media interact during conflict as it is happening in real time? And how do sources derived from social media become compromised or co-opted?
As the clashes started in Tripoli again, Rohan notes that while there were no updates from Lebanon’s major news outlets, social media became the means for people to share their experiences and frustration. While communities have always relied on alternative information sharing networks outside in emergency situations, (i.e. word of mouth, phone, radio), the fast-moving and democratised nature of social media accelerates how (mis)information and emotions can spread throughout a community, a country or even the world. Hashtags like #LebanonOnFire document and disseminate the living nature of information spreading, anxiety and rumour that are inherent in emergency and instability.
2) Social media can intentionally and unintentionally promote conflict
I’m surprised that this idea remains neglected in analysis of social media in conflict. There has been a large amount of coverage on the role of social media has played in non-violent protests and activism in the Middle East, being both glorified for amplifying social movements as well as sidelined for having its impacts sensationalised.
Yet strangely enough, there is a dearth of analysis on how social media can aggravate and magnify existing tensions. Obviously social media is not inherently a non-violent tool–it is just a vehicle to communicate the views of the user, no matter what those may be, peaceful or antagonistic. In contexts outside of conflict the internet is already rife enough with trolls and extremist views; there is no reason to think this changes when war is on the table. In fact the power actors have online when espousing nationalistic or controversial ideas could potentially be much more.
This isn’t to suggest that social media in itself will ’cause’ violent conflicts (a misunderstanding that has emerged in responses to Rohan’s article). Virtual activities obviously connect back to a larger political and structural context–it is too simplistic to suggest a rogue Tweet or blog materializes violence.
What is true is that Twitter, Facebook and blogs are spaces that can cultivate and embolden increased political polarisations. Akin to the role of radio in spreading hate speech and contributing to the Rwandan genocide, it is incredibly important to consider how social media can be a catalyst for violence in certain contexts.
These are just fledgling thoughts, so please get in touch to help flesh them out.
(and tip of the hat again to Rohan for inspiring my fall down this rabbit hole!)